Saturday, September 2, 2017

NHL Preview 2017-18: Buffalo Sabres

GM: Jason Botterill (since 2017). 7/10
Coach: Phil Housley (since 2017). 8/10

2016-17 record: 33-37-12, 78 points, 26th overall, out of the playoffs.

Departures: Marcus Foligno (LW), Dmitry Kulikov (D), William Carrier (LW), Tyler Ennis (LW), Derek Grant (C), Cal O'Reilly (C), Anders Nilsson (G).

Arrivals: Nathan Beaulieu (D), former captain Jason Pominville (RW), Marco Scandella (D), Benoît Pouliot (D), Jacob Josefson (C), Chad Johnson (G), Matt Tennyson (D), Seth Griffith (C).

Top forwards: Jack Eichel (70-85 points), Ryan O'Reilly (55-60 points), Sam Reinhart (50-55 points), Kyle Okposo (40-55 points), Evander Kane (enigmatic, but should be good for 20-30 goals), Pominville (40-some points, in the twilight of his career), Matt Moulson (30 points, no longer the point producer he was on a line with John Tavares), Alexander Nylander (30-40 points in his rookie year would be nice).

Must-improve forward: Zemgus Girgensons needs to find his All-Star form again. Whether or not he was the best on an awful team does not matter; he needs to step up to show he belongs in this rebuild or will need to look for a home elsewhere.

Top defensemen: Rasmus Ristolainen (40-50 points), Beaulieu (look for 30-35 points in his Sabres debut), Scandella (20-30 points), Jake McCabe (20-25 points).

Goalies: Robin Lehner (88/100) cementing his position as a #1 goalie in the NHL, Johnson (78/100), one of the good, reliable backups.

Top rookies: Nylander (19 years old, RW), Hudson Fasching (22, RW), Sean Malone (22, C), Brendan Guhle (20, D), Rasmus Asplund (19, C).

The Sabres still carry too much dead top-9 wood (Moulson, Okposo) that couldn't find a place on true contending teams to take over a playoff-bound team, but they will battle for a spot until March on the strength of good goaltending and a head coach who is formidable with his defensemen, having coached Team USA at the World Juniors back in the Seth Jones day and having been the D's go-to with the Nashville Predators for years. Scandella and Beaulieu make the back end 40% better than it was last year.

The offense has improved a bit as well, but Eichel is the only elite-level player there; the rest consists of decent middle-six depth forwards, some of whom do not have a reputation of being fine team players (ROR, Kane).

The Sabres are one big summer - or two full years of steady development - away from being serious playoff contenders, particularly in a division with the surging Toronto Maple Leafs and the stable Tampa Bay Lightning.

Prediction: 7th in the Atlantic Division

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